The suck is almost its own entity apart from the baby. Powerful, reflexive, autonomic. As unconscious as breathing or the heartbeat. Rhythmic as a fish mouth. Suck-suck-suck-suck-suck and then release—except not full release, as the nipple is still suctioned into the mouth. A vacuum. No space between you. Negative space. Less than none.
His mouth really has no choice once the nipple is in its vicinity, and as soon as he’s latched on, the rest of him is pulled along for the ride, soothed to sleep by the rhythm of his own jaws. Even after he dozes off, the motion doesn’t subside but merely weakens to a series of delicate tugs followed by an ever-increasing pause. And after he’s so deeply asleep that his mouth relaxes and I can pull away, his chin still goes on bobbing slightly in the same pattern, holding on to that ghost nipple or that dream nipple.
Oftentimes, we’re two disorganized flailing beings until he latches on. He’s crying; I’m awkwardly trying to soothe. Then I put him to breast, and we melt together. In an instant, he can go from bawling to making sounds that can only be described as vocalized question marks. He can go from every muscle tense with frustration to soft, warm, and pliant as a bunny’s ear. We can’t comfort each other, and then we can.
Bliss, but also work. I unhook my nursing bra; my tired, pale, stretched-out nipple gamely unfolds itself. Or I’ll wake up at night and find myself on my back like felled prey, as he crouches on my chest making slurping and smacking noises. Our children devour us.
When he was a newborn and I was on maternity leave, I calculated I spent more hours a week nursing than I had spent at my job. Now that he’s older, I still pass many a weekend afternoon in the rocking chair in his room with the shades drawn. I watch light play around the edges of the window and realize that the day is racing past, things out there are happening, adults are doing things in the adult world, and I’m in here immobile. I watch him as he looks at me, waves the comb he’s been holding, drops the comb, looks at nothing. His eyelids close, open, close, open, close and stay closed. I lean back gently and the nipple slides out of his mouth, but then some instinct for closeness rouses him, and he dives back on.
In moments like this, taking care of a baby, and then a toddler, you can feel like you’re in a time loop featuring the most boring seconds of the day. Open door, step out, close door, open door, step inside, close door, open again, as I hover nearby to protect him from shutting it on his fingers. Open a board book, allow me to read him two pages, then close the book, repeat. Open a baby-animals app on the iPad, close it while it is still loading, repeat ad infinitum. Suck suck suck suck suck.
Nursing him is so exquisitely boring—requiring attention and vigilance despite being extremely repetitive and nonverbal—that it sometimes drives me, a person who has always been more comfortable immersed in texts, to distraction. Often, I want nothing more than to escape into social media or my email. (My phone lies tantalizingly within arm’s reach, but it feels rude to check it when my real-life companion is inches away and staring at me.)
Babies, alas, cannot be emailed, texted, or IM’d. They demand in-person meetings. All they care about is your actual presence. And so you start to know them in the most tactile way. You know them by sight, of course, but also by feel: heat-radiating soft body, hard velvety head. By their surprising heft and humidity. Little talon hands that pinch. Cool fat cheeks. I know when he’s about to fall asleep because his scalp will sweat, and breathing it in I’ll catch the scent of a post-rainstorm summer day: earthworms and crushed green leaves. I have never been this physically close to someone for this long, never held a lover until I could tell by the signs of his body that he was about to fall asleep. It is a new language I am learning, that of my own body, sore and tired, and his body, heavy, squirming, willful, demanding. The language our bodies speak together.
I do sometimes escape into e-books on my phone during marathon night nursing sessions, when his eyes have closed but he won’t let go. Jane Eyre. Anna Karenina. “I love thinking of all those words going into your breast milk,” a friend tells me. “It’s like another way of reading to him.” Meanwhile, he’s teaching me his language, the language of touch and of the present moment. When he snuggles up to me in my bed—and he is a close snuggler, his sleeping face, his fisted hands, his pulled-up knees all pressed tightly against me—he knows no language but this, and neither do I.
Lynne Nugent has been managing editor of The Iowa Review since 2003. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing and a PhD in English from the University of Iowa. Her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Full Grown People, and elsewhere, and are forthcoming from River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column and the Mid-American Review. Find her at lynnenugent.wordpress.com.